TIFF #11: Lights Off, Lightbox On

September 20, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

The Varsity is once again showing mainstream fare. The Elgin and Roy Thompson Hall are quiet. The airport is buzzing as the lasts guests and festival-goers wait for their planes. The critics are dotting the final i's and crossing the final t's of their last reports. Hotel rates have dropped from exorbitant to reasonable and Toronto is sliding from late summer into early autumn, with the Canadian Thanksgiving only two weeks away. It's the end of the 2009 film festival, but also the end of an era. Next year, things will be different. How different, no one can say at this point, but different nonetheless. Before discussing that, however, it's time to provide a post-mortem of this year's events.

I have attended TIFF every year from 1997 until 2009. For much of that period, the festival seemed to expand and grow better on an annual basis (excepting 2001). Then, last year, there was a drop-off. Fewer big-name movies came to the festival and the attendance decreased. Ultimately, at least insofar as prestige matters, it was no big deal. For the second consecutive year (and third out of four), the Best Picture Oscar winner debuted at Toronto. This year, however, there was a marked decline even from last year. Throwing out 2001 because of its extraordinary circumstances, 2009 was the worst TIFF I have attended.

Some will disagree, and that's because everyone's festival experience is different. Someone who had a terrible 2008 and a much better 2009 will dispute my assertion. However, this isn't just my opinion. I surveyed a number of critics and average, paying festival-goers and the consensus was that if this wasn't the worst festival in the last 10 years, it was close. There are some points to note in support of that.

First, it's unlikely that the 2009 Best Picture winner premiered here. It's possible that Precious, which won the audience award, could take home Oscar's biggest trophy next year, but that was a Sundance premiere. Toronto marked one of the movie's final festival appearances before its continent-wide opening in November. Nothing else from TIFF 2009 appears Oscar-worthy, although a film or two may get a Best Picture nomination in the expanded 10-title field (a candidate is The Road).

Last year, I left the festival especially enthused about three films: Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and The Hurt Locker. Two of those movies made my Top 10 list for 2008; the other will make the list for 2009. But this year, my favorite TIFF film, Up in the Air, is on the bubble and may not make a list. Nothing else is in contention. (She, a Chinese is possibly Top 10 worthy, but I don't include films on the list unless they have at least a limited U.S. opening, which seems unlikely in this case.)

Finally, although Precious, Capitalism: A Love Story and a few others gained plenty of attention, there was no stand-out, "don't miss" movie. Normally, you can rely on at least one thing at TIFF: an unknown film that comes out of nowhere and galvanizes the festival. Think Juno or Slumdog Millionaire. There was no such entry this year. Standing in lines waiting for auditoriums to clear out, there was no title that was on the lips of every other person. No one was saying, "Do whatever you have to do to catch a screening of…" There was buzz about a number of films, but nothing that built to a cacophony.

None of that means TIFF 2009 was a bust or anything close to it. There were plenty of good films, and I saw three or four to which I would accord a ***1/2 rating. I don't regret having gone - it was well worth eight days in hotels, numerous nights with limited sleep, and 19 1/2 hours in the car (round-trip). Toronto, like any film festival, is as much about the experience as it is about the movies. It's hard to describe what it's like to see four or five films in one day, many of which are largely unknown, for about a week. It's like entering another world. That's why there's a certain amount of sadness when any festival, even one that fails to meet expectations, ends.

Why has Toronto fallen off the past two years, especially this one? There are tangible reasons. First and foremost, a festival is only as good as the movies it can attract. In 2008 and 2009, Toronto has had some trouble getting certain high profile films. Distributors have withheld titles. Last year, The Reader and Revolutionary Road were widely expected to premiere at Toronto, and neither did. This year, The Lovely Bones and Where the Wild Things Are were M.I.A. Why? The distributors wanted to keep them away from festivals. Given TIFF's recent success with respect to the Oscars, this doesn't seem like the smartest move, but I'm not the one calling the shots.

There may also be something more insidious at work. It's possible that there simply aren't as many great movies being made. That's a sad thought, but it can't be dismissed out-of-hand. Movies go through cycles. The '80s were terrible for indie-type productions. They rebounded in the '90s only to slide back into oblivion this decade. We may be at the nadir now - or at least I hope that's the case. So it could be that the biggest challenge being faced by Toronto is the same handicap confronting all festivals: limited product quality. You can't have a great festival if there aren't a lot of great films available.

Irrespective of how next year's roster of titles shapes up, TIFF 2010 will be fundamentally different from TIFF 2009 or any of the recent Toronto movie events. That's because the festival's permanent home, the Bell Lightbox, is due to open just in time for next year's fete. The Lightbox and its five auditoriums will become the hub of festival activities and screenings and, although outside theaters will still be needed, this will provide TIFF with a nerve center. There's nothing wrong with a decentralized festival, especially if you can arrange your personal schedule so that you don't have to do too much moving uptown and downtown (although the subway is excellent for quick trips), but it's hard to imagine that the opening of the Bell Lightbox will do anything but improve the overall festival experience. The Toronto International Film Festival may not be able to do much about the titles they show next year, but the introduction of this deluxe, state-of-the-art venue will upgrade TIFF 2010. Hopefully, I'll be there to cover it.

Short video discussing the Bell Lightbox: